Why all the attention to Pelosi's outfits?

House Speaker-elect Rep. Nancy Pelosi of Calif., right, and House Majority Leader-elect Steny Hoyer of Md., left, share a laugh during their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Nov. 20, 2006. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

"The emperor has no clothes," House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi once famously said about President Bush.

Well, actually he has some fairly decent ones, but it's been Pelosi's clothes - stylish, well-chosen and nicely cut, of the Armani variety - that have garnered attention since she became the most powerful woman in American politics earlier this month.

Why do we focus on Pelosi's clothes and not those of our president, or any male in Washington? Is it inherently sexist, detracting attention from her obvious accomplishments? Or is it merely a reflection of the obvious truth that, while clothes matter for both men and women, female attire is more noticeable, more expressive and more interesting?

Sartorial concerns
It's an easier call when the fashion verdict is negative. Then, it can seem cruel: Recall the harsh response to Bush's one-time Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, whose attire, accessories and makeup were excoriated in the media. If she'd been a man and her standard navy blue suits were a bit dowdy, one can imagine, no ink would have been wasted.

One person who finds attention to Pelosi's clothes "over the top" is Eleanor Smeal, one of the country's most recognizable feminists.

"Yes, she dresses impeccably and wears clothes beautifully," says Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "But this is a very accomplished woman. Why wasn't there more attention to her achievement of breaking through the marble ceiling (and becoming the first female Speaker in history)? They're trying to keep us on the style pages, the old-fashioned way."

But there is one positive aspect to the attention, Smeal says: "At least it's introducing the speaker to the country. Imagine if they DIDN'T like her clothes!"

Pelosi, a 66-year-old grandmother, isn't the first powerful woman in politics to be put under the sartorial microscope. The choices of Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most visible woman in U.S. politics, have been deconstructed through time, from her changing hairstyles to her inaugural hat in 1993 to the constant dark pantsuits on the Senate campaign trail, often paired with a pink blouse. (Again, imagine her well-dressed husband being criticized for always choosing a dark suit.)

Female clothing fair game?
Of course it isn't just in politics: on the night CBS's Katie Couric debuted as the first female solo anchor of a network evening newscast, her short white jacket (post-Labor Day, some critics noted disapprovingly) was analyzed as much as her performance.

One scholar of journalistic ethics argues that a politician's attire is fair game in news coverage - but only under certain circumstances.

"As a society, we look much more carefully at women's appearance than men," says Kelly McBride, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Florida. "At the same time, the clothing options for women are so much greater. As journalists, I don't see how we can ignore this."

Context and placement
The task for the media, McBride says, is to do it in proper context, and in a way that doesn't reinforce stereotypes. "It's safer to say, here's the reality: in our society we judge women by different standards - and then dig in to the nuances of that," she says. What's wrong, though, is to inject casual references to Pelosi's clothes into every news story, "which would reinforce the notion that women SHOULD be judged on appearance."

One extensive analysis of Pelosi's clothing came from Pulitzer-prize winning fashion critic Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, who often writes about the attire of major Washington figures - including a much-noticed piece on Vice President Dick Cheney's casual outerwear at a Holocaust memorial service in Poland last year.

Of the blue-gray Armani suit that Pelosi wore at her post-victory news conference, Givhan wrote that she appeared "polished and tasteful in front of the cameras. It is tempting to even go so far as to say that she looked chic, which in the world beyond Washington would be considered a compliment." Of outgoing speaker Dennis Hastert, whose rumpled suits have also been noted in the press, she wrote that there was "nothing chic or particularly polished" about him.

The article appeared in the paper's Style section, not in the political coverage - the kind of context and placement McBride was referring to. By contrast, an example of troubling references, to Smeal for one, are comments by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who referred in his election-night coverage not to the clothing of the Democratic speaker-in-waiting, but her female voice.

Pelosi, he said, was "going to have to do the big fight with the president over issues" like the minimum wage. "How does she do it without screaming?" he asked. "How does she do it without being grating?" He also compared the sound effect of Sen. Clinton's re-election victory speech to "fingernails on a blackboard."

Magnification of silliness
To David Brady, professor of political science at Stanford University, attention to Pelosi's clothes is a bit silly, but harmless in the long run.

"The fact is she's an attractive woman and she wears nice clothes - and she's got money," said Brady, deputy director of the Hoover Institution. "There are men who dress well too," he said, singling out Presidents Clinton and Bush (who has his suits made by a French-born tailor in Washington.) "You've got a country where entertainment channels are more heavily watched than news shows, where people care about Kevin Federline and Britney Spears. This is a magnification of that silliness. In the long run it won't harm her effectiveness."

Greta Petty, a 35-year-old artist in Portland, Ore., agrees that attention to Pelosi's clothes is fairly harmless - if only because she believes that only women are interested in such coverage, anyway. "It's not an issue of sexism," she says.

Besides, she adds: "men's attire is just not that interesting."